WHEN he sits in front of the television to watch the Africa Cup of Nations final tomorrow, Rommy Boco will have a touch of regret about a tournament that took place without him.
But it is hard to find a player in Accrington Stanley’s history who can look back with pride on quite the same globe-trotting experiences.
Affectionately nicknamed ‘the king of Benin’, Boco has appeared in three Africa Cup of Nations tournaments as well as playing club football in four different countries.
He was even due to take a brief break from his Stanley commitments to represent his country in a friendly in midweek, before a game against Egypt was cancelled because of the ongoing political situation in the north African country.
Now 27, Boco is in his second spell with Accrington after originally joining them from French side Niort in 2005, when Stanley were in the Conference.
By then he had already appeared in Africa’s premier tournament once as an 18-year-old in 2004.
Benin – a country that borders Nigeria but has a population of only 10 million people – were major underdogs and were beaten by South Africa, Morocco and Nigeria in their three group games.
But such an experience was still a thrill for Boco.
“I was very young and I looked all around and it was strange to see players on TV, then to play against them,” said Stanley’s top scorer this season. “I was very impressed. The teams we played were far better than us – the likes of Nigeria with top players like Jay-Jay Okocha.
“I wasn’t really expecting to play but I played two games.”
Boco then played in the tournament again four years later, this time while at Stanley, even if by then he was on the brink of a move to Irish side Sligo.
In 2008, Benin again exited without a point, although the goalscorers in each of the games do much to explain why: Freddie Kanoute for Mali, Didier Drogba for the Ivory Coast and Yakubu for Nigeria.
But Boco was beginning to be joined by other emerging Beninese talent, among them Sunderland’s Stephane Sessegnon and Sheffield Wednesday’s Reda Johnson.
In 2010 Boco helped his country break their tournament duck with a draw against Mozambique, although he believes they are capable of more.
There is disappointment that they have not reached the last two tournaments, going out to Ethiopia on away goals in qualification this time around.
“We’ve progressed a lot,” he said. “In 2010 we could have got more than that one point, we were winning 2-0 (against Mozambique). “We played Egypt and Nigeria too and had great games.
“It is difficult not to be there this time because we drew against Ethiopia away and because we drew at home 1-1 we were out. We were winning 1-0.
“But it did help my confidence to play in those tournaments.
“To compete against the best players in the world, people like Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o, it was a good experience.
“When you have a good game against good players, it gives you a boost.”
Boco now has more than 40 caps for Benin, which has seen him play in a number of countries across Africa – something he feels glad to have experienced.
“In African football, no matter where you go there is a very nice atmosphere,” he said.
“African people are like English people, but the difference is that football is the only thing they have.
“If you look at some places like Mali or Sierra Leone, their countries have been in a war and when they play football they just stop, they think about football and forget what is happening around them.
“They are very passionate, the stadiums are full and for the time of the game they are completely mad.”
In 2011 Boco also spent time playing in China for Shanghai East Asia.
“It was difficult at the beginning, with the language it was a bit hard to communicate with the players,” he said. “But I had a translator and it became easier.
“They don’t have the same education of football there as in Europe, but they base it on hard work.
“And to be honest it’s one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen.
“They are far more organised than every country in Europe, it is probably the best country in the world but no-one is going to speak about it, you have to live there to see it.
“A country like China doesn’t have to look at any other country, they’ve got a mentality and it’s about helping others.
“They’ve built unbelievable buildings, the economy is very good, people don’t suffer.
“The country has been changing a lot in the last 20 years.”
Back on the field, Boco will take a keen interest when favourites Nigeria take on the underdogs Burkina Faso in the Africa Cup of Nations final tomorrow, but first he knows he has an important game for Accrington this afternoon. The Reds host Southend at the Store First Stadium sitting just two points above the relegation zone after a worrying loss of form over the last few months. Boco was part of the Stanley squad that climbed out of non-league in 2006 and also scored their first two Football League goals.
“I didn’t know I was going to come back again but I always feel good here,” he said, having rejoined the club at the start of the season.
“We are going to work hard to stay up, it’s not an easy situation to be in but if we can stay up I guarantee it’s going to be like we’ve won the league.
“It’s very hard if you go down to go back up, it’s so hard that you have to try everything to stay up.
“You see teams like Luton or Grimsby, big teams who year after year try but can’t do it so it will mean a lot to us to stay in the Football League.”